Categorized | Arts & Culture

Caught Between Cultures

[culture]Deciding where to go to college is one of the most important decisions a student can make these days. For most students in America, the most important criteria for a college or university include the prestige of a specific degree program, the amount of academic resources available, and possibly the size of the school itself. For Ni Lu, a public relations graduate student from China, these criteria were only part of the puzzle. “I came to MSU not only because it has one of the top public relations programs in America, but also because it has such a diverse community. Lots of international students feel comfortable here at MSU because the university and the community are very supportive of foreign students,” Lu said. Lu is one of many international students who decided to study at MSU because of its diverse culture. [Tsuchiya]
According to America.gov, in 2007 over 600,000 international students journeyed to the U.S. in order to study in American schools; 3,869 of these students studied at MSU. These numbers are up almost 34 percent when compared to the number of international students who attended MSU in 2000.
“The number of undergraduates has really grown fast and furiously in recent years,” Peter Briggs, the Director of the Offices of International Students and Scholars (OISS), said. “We are very pleased to have a very strong international program this year.”
Once they have decided where to go to school, today’s international students, like Lu, face the additional challenge of trying to fit into a foreign culture while still staying true to many of their native values. It is a delicate balance that many international students say makes them feel caught between cultures. After studying in the U.S., many international students said that they do not feel like they belong in the U.S. or their own native country.
Balancing two cultures
Because many international students move back and forth between MSU and their home country each summer, reconciling American values and traditions with their own native ones, can often be difficult. For Lu, the independence of women in America is striking. “American girls are more independent than Chinese girls,” Lu said. “I had one friend who was living in a house outside of campus, and she had some home improvement projects that needed to be done. I was amazed that she had all of the tools and was able to fix it all by herself!”
Communications Graduate student Ayako Tsuchiya also notices the strong independence of American women: “In Japan, where I come from, our society is male dominated,” Tsuchiya said. “My culture says that women are supposed to be beautiful and thin; young girls are given more chores than their brothers, and all of my female friends back home just want to get married. I don’t want to be limited by these traditional values. When I took a women’s study class at MSU it really opened my eyes.” [culture2]
Lu and Tsuchiya both said that, though women have been gaining more rights in China and Japan, it is still a challenge to balance the differences between the two countries. “I have to switch my behavior when I go home,” Tsuchiya said. “I fought a lot with my mother when I first went home after studying in the U.S. because I did not want to be limited by what was required of me by Japanese society. In the end, I decided to do what my mother asks in order to maintain a good family relationship.”
Anirban Lahiri and Mohit Patil, two Indian second-year graduate students studying mechanical engineering, have noticed differences between the U.S. and Indian dating cultures. “In India, the older generations are still following the old tradition of arranged marriage,” Patil said. “A lot of my friends back home are in arranged marriages. It is a kind of fallback option if you cannot find a suitable spouse. The dating and courtship period is generally short in India. This does not seem to be the case in the U.S. People take a lot more time before committing to marriage here.” Lahiri agreed saying, “Dating is more open in America; it is less conservative than in India.”
When it comes to dealing with these differences, Patil and Lahiri say that they meet both cultures half way. “I find that my dating practices in America are more liberal than they would have been a home, but more conservative than some American students,” Lahiri said. Patil agreed saying, “When it comes to dating, I try to meet both cultures in the middle.”
Dealing with Faith
Religion, whether practiced or not, is another issue that affects many international students. Microbiology and molecular genetics student Amed Yacoub, from Saudi Arabia, said that he has trouble following the tenets of Islam while going to school at MSU. “I love the religious freedom in America [and at MSU],” Yacoub said. “But it is hard being a Muslim student here. It is difficult to find time to pray at the Mosque on Harrison multiple times a day because it is so far away from my classes. We have been trying to get a room in Anthony Hall that Muslim students can use for prayer on a daily basis, but it is hard to reserve classrooms for that much time.” [understand]
Yacoub also said that the precepts of Islam conflict with typical MSU student parties. “Because I am Muslim, I do not drink, dance, or have girls. Whenever I go to parties at MSU people always ask me ‘Why are you studying here?’ since I do not participate in this part of U.S. culture. I do not judge them for their actions, but those students are not very accepting of mine,” Yacoub said.[culture3]
On the other hand, supply chain management junior Baba Koumare who is originally from Mali is a Muslim student who does not actively practice here at MSU. “It’s hard for me to do it here because I would have to leave classes to pray. Also, Muslims are not allowed to eat pork, which is difficult here because a lot of the meat in the cafeterias is pork. It is hard for me to stay on the same diet while going to school here,” Koumare said.
Much like Tsuchiya and her family, Koumare has decided that maintaining good family relations is more important than his religious ideals. “When I went home last time my dad was kind of mad at me for not following Islam, but I just tried to brush it off. In the end I decided to practice while I’m at home so that I don’t argue with my dad,” she said.
Public relations graduate student Xiaona Hu, from China, said that religious groups on campus are particularly accepting of international students. “We have met so many nice Christian people here,” Hu said. She professes no religious belief herself. “The Christian groups on campus are so helpful to international students. They invite the international students to join them for events and get-togethers where we are able to meet new people.”
Lu agreed that local churches have been a good place to meet people, despite the fact that she is not specifically interested in joining a new religion. “While I have no intentions of being part of the church, I like attending their events,” Lu said.
Finding Friendship
Of all the issues mentioned by international students at MSU, the one cultural issue that is of concern to everyone is friendship. Because the nature of friendship varies from country to country, it is sometimes difficult for international students to understand U.S. friendship dynamics. Koumare said that when he first arrived at MSU it was hard to tell the difference between friendly people and friends. “At first when people say ‘hi’ to you, you think they know you and that they want to be friends with you. But when you see that person again and say ‘hi’ to them and they say ‘do I know you?’ it gets really confusing. Where I’m from, you don’t say ‘hi’ to strangers. In the end I learned that here in America there is a difference between being friends and just being friendly,” Koumare said.
Hu agreed. “People do not say ‘hi’ to each other in China if they don’t know the other person. Americans are so friendly; I really like how students and bus drivers say ‘hello’ and ‘good day’ to everyone at MSU. It makes me feel good. Since living in the U.S., I am more comfortable saying ‘hi’ to people.”
[culture4]Despite the friendliness of strangers making many international students feel more comfortable and welcome at MSU, it is often still difficult for international students to make American friends. One barrier between international and American students at MSU is the fact that even international students who speak perfect English may not understand some American idiosyncrasies like sarcasm. This can sometimes cause confusion and embarrassment for the student and often times can hinder the friendship process. “When I first came here, I did not know how sarcastic American culture could be,” Japanese communications graduate student Ayako Tsuchiya said. “I have this Caucasian friend who used to have really long hair. One day when I saw her, her hair was above her shoulders. It was such a big change, so I asked her, ‘Did you get a hair cut?’ She said, ‘No, my hair shrunk.’ I was so confused by this statement. I thought that her hair might have actually shrunk because of the humidity or something! I was hurt at first because I thought that she was making fun of me. It wasn’t until later that I began to understand that Americans can be very sarcastic.”
Organic chemistry graduate student, Roozbeh Yousefi, who is from Iran, agreed that making American friends can be challenging. “One problem that is hard to overcome is friendship with Americans. I would like to make more American friends so that I can improve my English language skills, but right now I am just friends with my lab mates, most of whom are international students,” Yousefi said. [pic6]
Briggs, the director of the OISS, explains that this friendship barrier is the result of the way American students view friendship. “We as Americans tend to compartmentalize our friendships sometimes. You have the one friend that you play sports with, another friend you go to the movies with, and another person you might study with. I think that foreign cultures tend to have a lot more comprehensive view of friendship than we do in the U.S.,” Briggs said.
The OISS recognizes that one of its toughest challenges is to help international students become friends with American students. “We need to work harder to make the friendships here,” Briggs said. “When we talk to American students, they think it is really cool that MSU has a really significant amount of international presence on campus. Then we ask the first question, which to the American students is ‘Do you have an international friend?’ and to the international students is, ‘Do you have an American friend?’ and then the numbers drop way off. We need to work harder at that, even though there are supportive numbers on both sides.”
Cultural Understanding
At the end of the year, once the initial shock has passed and cultural differences have been confronted, international students walk away with a better understanding of America and MSU than they had before. Some students leave with a greater respect for some American cultural norms, such as independent women, while others realize that they prefer their native traditions and customs, such as their religion. Whatever the case may be, understanding another culture is not facilitated by black and white cultural comparisons, nor does it entail adopting all of that cultures values and moral principles. [Ammigan]
“The thing about understanding a different culture, I think it is somewhat misperceived by local people and international people,” Ravi Ammigan, assistant director of OISS, said. “When you are coming across another culture, to be an effective communicator, to be an interculturalist, you don’t need to leave yours and adapt to another culture; all you need to do is just be aware that things may be different in a different culture. Creating that sense of awareness, not jumping to conclusions, not making judgments, just by holding on and seeking understanding you will begin to know that deeper cultural layer.” Open-minded awareness is what cultural understanding is all about.
Lu has enjoyed studying here at MSU. “The career development, the alumni networks, and the student life here at MSU are wonderful,” she said.
As for the future, Lu is not sure where she will go from here. “Life is so unpredictable; I do not know where I will go when I graduate. I’d like to travel a lot once I am out of school, but in the end, once I am 30, I will probably settle down in China or the U.S.”
Lu’s advice to perspective international students is this: “Life in a foreign country can be difficult and frustrating at times, and it can also be enjoyable. Remember that everything in life is a lesson, and the variable in your life is experience. Just don’t forget to enjoy your time here.”
If you would like to get more involved with the international community here at MSU, feel free to check out the International Coffee Hour every Friday from 4 pm-6 pm in the International Center. You can also visit the OISS website at www.oiss.msu.edu for more information on the coffee hour and upcoming OISS events.

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